Whether we are the victim or the accused, Black Americans knows better than to expect fairness from this country’s courts. That’s why we were justifiably shocked when ex-officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder on Tuesday for shooting and killing Botham Shem Jean in his own Dallas apartment.
Guyger, who is white, has maintained that she thought she had walked into her own apartment in September 2018, when she saw Jean, who is Black, and believed him to be an intruder. But instead of backing away and calling for support, she shot him; he had been watching TV and eating ice cream when she entered. She did not even administer CPR to Jean after realizing what she had done, displaying a particularly damning disregard for his life. Even after his death, it took three days for her to be taken into police custody, and her department argued for weeks she shouldn’t be immediately terminated.
The way Guyger’s case was handled in those early days seemed to follow a familiar trajectory of how most officers are treated when they take Black lives, whether it’s on camera, while unarmed, while in mental duress, or even for being a child with a toy. The thick blue line of power has allowed the vast majority of officers to avoid accountability, even when the clearest evidence points to guilt.
Police officers have killed over a thousand people a year in recent years: Of those killed by police since 2005, less than 100 officers have been arrested, only 35 officers have been convicted — and, as of March, only three of them of murder. Less than 1 percent of all officers are convicted when their victim is Black — even though Black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police.
So when it came to Jean’s death and Gyuger’s trial, Black Americans were too wise and too weary to let ourselves believe, even for a moment, that this system would do anything but break our hearts once again. We had little reason to believe that this time, finally, an officer would be held accountable for something so clearly criminal.
But on Tuesday, a jury found Guyger guilty. Of particular surprise: She was found guilty of murder, not manslaughter. The shock was palpable. “A white person is actually going to jail for murdering a black person in America. In the south. In TEXAS. Idk which race is more shook by this realization,” BuzzFeed News reporter Sylvia O’Bell tweeted.
Though some are hailing the outcome as as proof of a transformed system, and a “major shift in how juries see police officers,” until convictions become the norm, Guyger’s conviction stands as a nearly singular anomaly. This exceptional verdict is due in no small part to a diverse jury pool — many of whom shared a racial background with Botham Jean. Of the 12 jurors and four alternates, seven were black, five were non-black people of color, and four were white.
The rarity of this jury pool can not be underestimated — especially in the state of Texas. In one of the states with the highest incarceration rates in the country, Black Texans make up just 12 percent of the population, but 32 percent of incarcerees. And since, like most states, Texas requires jury members to “not have been convicted of, or be under indictment or other legal accusation for, misdemeanor theft or a felony,” a disproportionate amount of Black people are already out of the running to serve on a jury of their peers.
Which brings us to the obvious question: Would a whiter jury have convicted Amber Guyger of murder? I fear the answer is no. The data bears this out — white juries see white defendants as less blameworthy generally, particularly when the victim is Black — as does our cumulative lived experience as Black Americans. Our collective shock should also be an indicator: we do not expect accountability to be the rule moving forward, and thus far, we have no reason to.
If anything, this case shows the importance of a diverse jury of literal peers that properly reflects the communities in which we live. Unless the members of the jury can identify the fear, terror, and pain that Botham Jean must have felt but is no longer alive to speak to, trials of police officers will lack the proper context with which to make a judgement.
In the end, our community garnered accountability for one murder, one time, and we still await Guyger’s sentencing — which could be a characteristically light sentence for a white police officer who killed a Black victim.
The family of Botham Jean may have received a conviction, but it is not justice. As an activist who aspires toward prison abolition and alternatives, I believe that our current carceral system is deeply flawed and inhumane, but this is still our current system of accountability. The courts should be performing their function with equity in all ways — including charging and convicting officers of wrongdoing, with juries who reflect the communities they were sworn to serve. A conviction is accountability; a living Botham Jean is true justice. Words matter. If we romanticize the bare minimum, we remove the pressure to demand such justice.
Some say Amber Guyger got what she deserved. And in our current carceral system, she did. Far too few of her colleagues ever do. But ultimately, I am concerned with Black lives being protected, respected, and honored. This is what we deserve.
Brittany Packnett is an activist, educator, and writer living in Washington, DC. She was a Ferguson protestor, served on President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, and co-founded Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence in America. She is a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and finishing her first book, We Are Like Those Who Dream.